Scientists improve communication of sea level rise risks

According to a group of climate scientists, including a prominent expert from Rutgers University, there has been progress in effectively communicating crucial facts about future sea level rise. The scientists emphasize the significant consequences of improved communication, as policymakers are actively integrating climate scientists’ risk assessments into major planning efforts to mitigate the impacts of rising seas.

In an article published in Nature Climate Change, the researchers conducted a review of language and graphics used in climate assessment reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) between 1990 and 2021. They found that while some aspects of sea level rise with quantifiable risks were accurately presented, conveying uncertainties that are difficult to quantify often fell short. This resulted in oversimplified projections or confusing information, potentially leading policymakers to overlook the risks associated with high-end sea-level outcomes.

The scientists distinguish between quantifiable uncertainty, which can be measured and conveyed with confidence, and ambiguity, which represents a deeper uncertainty that is challenging to quantify. Ambiguity arises when a common set of facts can be interpreted in divergent ways or cannot be interpreted adequately.

The analysis compares the language used in IPCC reports from 1990 to 2021, including the UN’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate issued in 2019, regarding the ambiguity of late-century sea level rise. The contrast between the First Assessment Report in 1990, which deemed rapid disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet unlikely in the next century, and the Sixth Assessment Report in 2021, which warns of potential high rates of sea level rise caused by various factors, demonstrates the evolution of understanding and communication. The recent report acknowledges the presence of deep uncertainty in these processes and suggests a low-likelihood, high-impact scenario that could contribute more than one additional meter of sea level rise by 2100 under high emissions.

Effectively communicating complex risk scenarios to the public remains an ongoing challenge. The success of the approach taken in the latest climate report will be reflected in future regional assessments and ultimately evaluated by policymakers, climate scientists, and social scientists.

The study emphasizes the importance of scientists accurately communicating sea-level projections and the magnitude of ambiguity. Clear and effective communication is crucial for informing decision-making by planners and policymakers.

Source: Rutgers University

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